In July 1518 in Strasbourg, France, there was a viral outbreak of sorts. This outbreak wasn’t the black death that plagued Europe in the mid-1300s. It was an outbreak of dancing. One mid-summer day, a woman named Frau Troffea took to the streets and began dancing. She didn’t dance in a rhythmic, organized fashion, but instead twisted her body violently to a song that no one else could hear. Within a week, dozens of others had joined Troffea in the streets, erratically dancing to their own silent beats. The city leaders grew concerned as the number of afflicted grew, and physicians recommended that the dancers must dance their condition away. A stage was constructed, and musicians were brought in to help the sick purge their bodies of this illness. Yet the condition continued to spread. By August, the crowd had swelled to an army of 400 dancers. Their feet began to bloody, their eyes glazed over, and a few even fainted and died after weeks and weeks of incessant dancing. Finally in September, this mysterious affliction disappeared as quickly as it had appeared.
At least ten examples of this “dancing fever” occurred throughout Europe in the Middle Ages, with the Strasbourg incident being the best recorded. All sorts of causes have been proposed: Perhaps the infected had consumed some sort of fungi or hallucinogen that caused them to see and hear things that weren’t there. Maybe it was a curse from God or one of the saints. This condition was later referred to as “St. Vitus’ Dance”, named after the patron saint of dance. But the prevailing theory is that these dancing plagues were simply madness of the crowds. The dancers worked themselves into a frenzy as their numbers grew.
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